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Empathy across the curriculum: The arts

By Jen Williams and Kristin Ohnstad| May 3, 2019
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This is Part II of a two-part series on empathy across the curriculum. You can find Part I of the series, Empathy HERE.

We asked arts educators from around the world this question: How do you teach empathy in arts classrooms? We heard from a music teacher, an art teacher, a classroom teacher, and a school principal. Here is what they said:

Incorporating music from other cultures or music written about or for world events are important aspects in teaching and eliciting empathy. Many music educators do this naturally, making a point to teach more than the notes on the page. This helps to create real-world connections that benefit students and the audience.

One of our band ensembles is currently working on a piece by Julie Giroux called Our Cast Aways. The piece was written to bring awareness to and (hopefully) action for the 6.5 million+ animals in shelters and the 2.4 million+ of them that are put down every year. The piece works through different musical concepts accompanied by words and pictures to help draw the students and audience in — provoking thoughts and eliciting emotion. Tony Passaro, @mrtonypassaro, Music Teacher, Belgium

Narrative immersion models of learning allow students to role-play outside of their spheres of experience. Through inquiry, dramatic role-playing, storytelling, and literary deconstruction, students are able to embody others, as well as test out alternative ways of interacting, thinking, feeling, and expressing emotion.

Recently with our Grade 2 students, we used drama to explore a nonsense poem I wrote about a monster who turns out to be misunderstood. In Didn’t You Hear About The Lizzerbee?, a beast comes to a town to take something very valuable from them — their Cannerlee (this could be a member of the royal family, a precious stone, a bird’s egg, or anything else depending on the group). We read through the poem in stages, adding more to the assumptions and expectations of the class as each verse was revealed. At each step, using a narrative immersion model, we role-played the villagers as they prepared for an expedition to reclaim what they had lost. As we got closer to the ‘lair’ of the beast, tension built, and the students prepared themselves to fight and maybe kill the animal. But, upon discovery of the cave, the “villagers” (students) did not find a monster waiting for them, instead a note from the Lizzerbee that read “I needed the Cannerlee to feel less alone.”

The group is left to question their original intentions and to see the story from a completely different perspective — that of the Lizzerbee’s. Maybe it wasn’t a monster after all, maybe we had done something which caused the Lizzerbee to be lonely. If the Lizzerbee is sad, what can we do to help? We were able to use the technique as a tool to help students travel beyond their own spheres of experience. Carl Robinson, @CarlERobinson, Drama Teacher, Belgium

The arts have always been a creative outlet that offers freedom of expression. In our class this year, my students took the idea of “One Word” for 2019 and added an image/photograph of what they felt would best represent their selected word. It turned out that many of their images evoked empathy since we began talking about it in our curriculum. The students focused in on words and actions such as persistence, peace, compassion, and praise. Empathy wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of student thinking at the start of the school year, but now with  opportunities to reflect and demonstrate empathy, they’ve become more caring, responsible, and thoughtful — everything we hope for in future global citizens. Yau-Jau Ku, @yaujauku, 4th Grade English Immersion Teacher, China 

one word exercise

At Lexington Middle School, we are fortunate to have a West African Drum Ensemble Class. Our students are able to wander through a musical lens in which they receive a deeper understanding of a culture through music. It was inspiring to see this in full action during our Performance Day recently. During this experience, our drum ensembles performed. The teacher of this class invited parents, teachers, and administrators to not only observe, but to also participate. The photos captured so much of the joy! Sean Gaillard, @smgaillard, School Principal, North Carolina, USA

West African drum ensemble class
West African drum ensemble class drum circle

Special thanks to these global educators for sharing their ideas on empathy across the curriculum in the arts classroom. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #SparkEmpathy and by tweeting to us at @JenWilliamsEdu, @KristinOhnstad, and @EmpaticoOrg.